The Trend Games

This weekend, like so many of you, I went to see The Hunger Games. (It’s good; go see it if you haven’t already!)

The hype around this movie has been insane. It’s everywhere. Like with Twilight, as big as the book was, a movie adaptation makes it even bigger. Teens who don’t usually read suddenly pick up the book in anticipation of the movie. Adults who don’t read YA want to see what all the fuss is about. These types of readers are rarely changed for life. They likely won’t pick up another YA until the next HUGE THING gets optioned for a movie.

For writers, something similar happens. There are YA writers who suddenly decide to write in the movie’s genre or Adult writers who give YA a go because YA breeds the biggest hits right now. The problem with this mentality is that the book world and the film world are two different things.

There’s an episode of Scrubs in which, on a slow day at the hospital, the gang sees an announcement on the news for a Sars-like epidemic. Suddenly, the hospital is flooded with hypochondriacs who think they have symptoms of the disease. This is what movie adaptations of popular books is like.

It’s no surprise that I love Harry Potter. I love it not only because the books are well-written and the story is timeless, but also because of what this series meant to literature. Yes, Young Adult existed – just barely – before Harry Potter was published in 1998, and (as I’ve pointed out before) there were certainly popular YA titles in the late ’90s and early ’00s. But it wasn’t until the overwhelming, Beatle-mania-level popularity of Harry Potter that YA became a legitimate force in literature, complete with its own section in the bookstore and bestseller list in the New York Times
Unfortunately, there is one thing I can’t quite forgive J.K. Rowling for, and that’s her creation of “the trend.” More than in adult fiction – and perhaps because teens themselves latch onto trends more than adults – the YA market is often built around one huge concept. Before Harry, YA was full of stories about teens finding their voices. Some novels took more chances than others, some were darker, some were genre fiction gems, but for the most part they were contemporary stories that came of age with the term Young Adult itself.

Harry showed the world that YA could go beneath the surface of what being a teen is like. Taking us to a land of magic and showing us the powers of family and friendship, YA was able to become a more nuanced genre. The formerly quiet Young Adult market needed a while to get a hold of what Harry did to it, and once it recovered the timing was right for Twilight to take over. In the book world, The Boy Who Lived was so five minutes ago by 2005. While the rest of the world enjoyed our wizards, we book dwellers found vampires. Not the vampires adults were used to. YA needed their turn with them, so enter Twilight. For better or worse, YA was all about cute dead boys and the girls who loved them. As followers of the publishing industry, you don’t need to be told what happened next: Paranormal Romance Overload.

After a few adaptations of the books that started our obsession with vamps, werewolves, and all those paranormal dreamboats, the book industry was once again ready to move on. So in the midst of the later Twilight books and the early Twilight movies, readers moved on to the next next big thing – The Hunger Games – and it’s been all dystopia all the time ever since.

Which brings me back to the The Hunger Games movie. Despite claims of following agents on Twitter and reading industry blogs, it seems every querying writer who writes in a trend consciously ignores our insider knowledge that the market is too saturated for them to join the club. The justification that I most often see in queries is “because of the success of the movies…” What trend-hoppers don’t realize is that the popularity of a movie does not effect their likelihood of getting – or not getting – published. That’s not to say movies don’t help immensely with sales of already-published books within the genre. They also can help start trends within the movie industry. But, we don’t work in the movie industry.
When a book like Harry, Twilight, or The Hunger Games becomes so big that it single-handedly creates a trend, the next logical step is for that book to become a movie. Writers should think of film adaptations as the equivalent of your parents joining Facebook. Millions of people were already enjoying it, but anything exclusive or cool about it is over the second it crosses over to a different audience. Books start trends; films end them.

Twilight wasn’t fantasy and The Hunger Games wasn’t paranormal romance. The Next Big Thing won’t be in the same genre as the current trend, so jump off the train, start something new, and be what’s next.

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That Guy You Love to Hate

This week, I learned something about myself: I am the only person on the face of the e-earth who doesn’t hate Jonathan Franzen. I’ve written about J-Franz before when Freedom was released in 2010, but after a year of a post-publication quiet, The Franzen is back with a vengeance in 2012.

After just coming off He-Called-Edith-Wharton-Ugly Gate, he had this to say about Twitter:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring “The Metamorphosis.” Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter “P”… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

Now, I love Twitter. During the week, I use it to talk about publishing news, queries I receive, writing tips, and Doctor Who. I started using Twitter to fit my role of literary agent, so I never get too personal. (Likes, dislikes, and political leanings are about as deep as I go. Hopes and dreams are for offline friends.) Of course, there are those who use Twitter as an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Perhaps these are the people Jonathan Franzen finds irritating. Or maybe he hates me too. Who knows?

If you asked me three years ago what I thought about Twitter, my response would not have been too far from Franzen’s. I didn’t get it. It was glorified Facebook statuses at best, and a complete waste of brain cells at worst. Then I found my niche, gained some followers, and learned that if it’s used effectively, it’s more about communication than it is about self-promotion. I’ve even made real-life friends out of people who were once only avatars, and have made contacts in my industry that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. For an introvert who skips every networking event I can, this was a big deal.

As a converted fan of Twitter, I read Franzen’s comment with the same level of attention I give my grandmother when she complains about Madonna being a floozy. I shrugged it off, and reasoned that it’s no surprise that guy who said ebooks are “damaging society” doesn’t really care for social media. My only real problem with Franzen’s quote is how melodramatic it is. 
Apparently, a lot of people had deeper problems with it. Twitter (of course) exploded with anti-Franzen sentiment and started the (often hilarious) hashtag #JonathanFranzenHates, which included “your mom” and “pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” There were also a lot of “get off my lawn” jokes. Yes, Franzen is behind the times and is perhaps yelling about things he doesn’t understand. But why do we care? We use Twitter; he doesn’t. Lots of people don’t. If Franzen wants to go all Andy Rooney about it, then why can’t we just let him? 

The thing about Jonathan Franzen is that he’s an extremely talented writer, and one of the last of his generation of white male literary novelists who still use typewriters. Whether you read literary fiction or not, it’s hard not to respect him as an author. If he wasn’t a Great American Novelist, then no one would pay attention when he speaks. But now it seems we’ve reached a point where we’re looking for reasons to pay attention, when in reality we can probably just ignore him until his next book is published.
I don’t understand the scrutiny of Franzen’s remarks or the notion that it’s actually people like Franzen who are destroying society. No, they’re not. He’s not telling us not to use social media. He’s stating his opinion on it. In his usual style, it comes off as judgmental and harsh, but it’s not meant to be divisive. We’re doing that. And the irony is, Franzen doesn’t even know we’re doing it because he doesn’t use the Internet.

At some point between The Corrections and now, there’s been a collective glee in taking Franzen down a notch, but no one will explain why it means so much to them to destroy this man. If he misspeaks in the media, his haters not only make sure the story doesn’t die, but will take things out of context so he seems like even more of a monster. The worse he looks, the better they feel. 

It’s hard to pinpoint when Franzenfreude first started. Was it when he dissed Oprah? Was it that Time cover? Or perhaps the “feud” he had with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Piccoult, that was unbeknownst to him? I’m not defending Franzen’s personality. He seems exhausting, but he’s not unlike most other literary authors who have an inflated sense of self-importance. As I described him in my 2010 post, he’s pompous, sure, but he’s also socially awkward (which can lead to saying the wrong thing) and resistant to change (which often comes with choosing a field that’s mostly solitary). In simpler terms, he’s just kind of a dick. But is he a bad person? A purposely vindictive character in our literary world? No. 
Jonathan Franzen is the literary world’s Gwyneth Paltrow. (Until she decides to conquer our world too.) One wears a cloak; the other wears a cape. Gwyneth is not a bad person. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say she’s probably a very good person. The problem with Gwyneth is that she’s severely out of touch with reality, undeniably privileged, and doesn’t understand why everybody can’t buy the same $450 moisturizer she uses. She is very easy to roll your eyes at, and even more fun to flat out hate. She’s a symbol of privilege, a walking Monty Python sketch, but she isn’t someone who deliberately causes harm. 
Like the people who subscribe to Goop ironically, every time Franzen says something like his Twitter rant, I’m more amused than outraged. Oh Franzen, I’ll say to myself, You so crazy. Then I go on about my day. But when I see the indignation from people who seem to forget that he’s completely predictable, my inner monologue tends to sound more like this.

So, let’s all calm down and keep things in perspective. Maybe Franzen does think women are ugly subordinates (he doesn’t). There are real attacks on women going on in this country right now. As a feminist, I don’t want to waste my efforts on a man who may or may not think he’s a better writer than I am based solely on my gender. If there are men who think that, then that only speaks to a larger issue in our society that needs attention.

Similarly, there are real implications of resisting change. We do need to adapt and modernize and understand what’s necessary to survive. Using social media to complain about a guy who doesn’t use social media is not in our best interest. It only proves him right.

Social media is for connecting with others, giving ourselves a platform, and showing people like Franzen that it can be useful without attacking them for not joining in.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s for talking about Doctor Who.